Fruits and Veggies Abound
You don't need a backyard farm to enjoy the tangy flavor of just-picked blueberries or the juicy sweetness of vine-ripened tomatoes still warm from the sun. Strategize right, and you can grow a lot of food in a tiny space, even in full view of your neighbors. "The first thing is to change your mind-set," says Rosalind Creasy, whose experiments with edible plants in her suburban Los Altos, California, front yard led her to write the classic Edible Landscaping, which was recently updated and reissued. "Think about giving edible plants more status." They don't need to hide in the backyard, for instance, especially if you choose fruit and vegetable varieties with ornamental attributes.
Bush beans, eggplant, sage, basil, artichokes, and a container of mint line the backyard path Save (shown).
Another insight: You don't need to grow food as farmers do. Instead of planting big crops that ripen all at once, tuck in a few seeds or transplants every few weeks so that there's a continuous food supply. You don't need long vegetable rows, either. Most edibles actually do better mixed in with different varieties or with flowering plants. Luckily, growing methods that work best for plants also mesh nicely with ways to grow a lot of food in a small space.
Shown: Lettuce is an easy-to-replenish crop that can be harvested all summer.
Plant in Pots
You can grow most edibles in containers, with caveats: Containers must be sized right and have proper drainage. "Pots less than 6 to 8 inches across are just too much bother," Creasy says. "The soil dries out too fast." Heavy, oversize pots can also be problematic if you're growing dwarf figs, apricots, or other fruit that needs to overwinter in the shelter of an unheated garage or shed. Avoid needing to move anything bigger than a half-barrel, even if you rig up wheels before you plant. Strawberry pots, which have planting pockets on the sides, are great for herbs as well as berries.
Shown: Swiss chard, bush zucchini, and herbs, including sage, basil, and parsley, all do well in pots.
The Right Soil
For soil, bagged container mixes work well. Don't use mixes labeled for starting seeds or growing specific kinds of plants—unless you're growing blueberries, when the high acidity of a rhododendron-camellia mix is perfect.
Look for special container vegetable-garden plants offered by some companies (try Renee's Garden); these are often especially attractive, productive, and compact varieties.
Shown: A window-box herb garden allows for easy snipping.
Grow Up Where You Can
You aren't limited to what can sprawl along the ground. Trained up a trellis, pole peas and beans, cucumbers, small melons, and vining squash all have a small footprint in the garden. A full or half cage made of field fencing is easy to anchor to a container for supporting tomatoes. For a garden bed, Creasy favors 4x4 posts and hog- or cattle-wire panels, which come in sturdy, flat sections and can support even the heaviest fruit. For either style, get material with 4-inch openings so that you can reach through at harvest time. You can also grow pole beans or cherry tomatoes on a garden arch, which makes harvesting especially easy—just walk through and pluck.
Shown: Tepees of bamboo stakes allow squash to clamber up in a mixed border.
Mounting pots on walls, balconies, and roof overhangs also uses vertical space. If your best sun lands on a small area or against a wall, place pots there on a tiered plant stand.
There are also newfangled vertical growing systems modeled after modular systems that support green roofs. Options range from plastic grid systems with angled planting cells (ELT Easy Green) to products made of metal mesh (McNichols) to fabric pockets that look like shoe storage systems (Urban Garden Products, Inc and Plants On Walls). Just make sure you understand where excess water will drain so that you don't rot out a wall or balcony.
Shown: A hanging pot overflows with salad greens.
Create a Raised Bed
A raised bed filled with good soil will warm up and dry out faster in spring, and the added elevation will help keep people from walking across it and compacting the soil or trampling tender shoots. A bed 4 feet square works well, but adjust dimensions to fit your space. Along a wall or fence, go for 2 feet in depth (learn how to build one of any size at thisoldhouse.com/bonus). Grow more food and shade out weeds by staggering plants in all directions and not in rows.
Shown: A bench near a raised bed serves as a knee rest.
Block It Out
Or follow the advice of Utah gardener Mel Bartholomew, author of the best-selling Square Foot Gardening: Divide your bed into 1-square-foot sections, meaning a bed 4 feet on each side would have 16 sections. Plant and harvest each square individually, perhaps with a single broccoli or cabbage plant right in the middle; or nine medium plants, such as beets or spinach, 4 inches apart; or 16 carrots, radishes, or onions 3 inches apart. Sow new seeds every few weeks, spring through fall, to extend the harvest. It's an easy way to feed a family and keep from feeling overwhelmed with upkeep.
Shown: Trellised runner beans share this bed with zucchini, kale, and tomatoes (shown).
Blend in With Flowers
Maybe you have outdoor space but it's already entirely landscaped. To grow food, tuck attractive edibles among the ornamentals or replace what's there over time. Have a shrub that's barren in the winter? Switch to a blueberry bush—it's also bare in winter but has fruit in summer. Genetic dwarf peaches, such as 'El Dorado,' grow just 3 feet high, or taller columnar apple trees can also substitute for existing shrubs.
In a perennial border, the huge leaves of rhubarb plants look striking. You can also mix and match by color. "People ask if they can put that beautiful red-stemmed chard in with red verbena," Creasy says. "I say, 'Yes!' Does that purple cabbage look good with purple pansies? Yes! People gasp at my pictures showing a red wall with purple blackberries hanging down. With roses, people expect beauty. But blackberries are beautiful too. And the thornless kind, such as 'Black Satin,' are easy to control."
Shown: Curly-leaf kale and bok choy mingle with orange calendula in this mixed border (shown).
Edge With Plants
Good edging options include strawberries, especially the red- and yellow-fruited alpine varieties, which don't spread by runners. Chives and low-growing herbs, such as marjoram and thyme, also work well to finish off flower borders.
In general, choose varieties that keep on giving: broccolis that produce lots of side shoots, so you can cut a few at a time. With leafy greens, such as lettuce, spinach, kale, and chard, pick the largest leaves and allow the small ones to mature for later.
Shown: A stunning display of red leaf lettuce and red tulips.